Modern agriculture is part of the solution

By Cam Dahl, general manager for Manitoba Pork

It is not your great-granddaddy’s farm anymore. While some may have nostalgia for the old farm with a little red barn that housed a few chickens, a couple of pigs, and a dairy cow, it is better for both the environment and the economy that agriculture has modernized. Today’s farmer has taken, and is taking, key steps to protect our natural resources while maintaining economic sustainability. Farmers are a critical part of creating the solutions to today’s environmental challenges while fostering economic growth and job development.

Being part of the environmental solution includes resolving the algae problem in Lake Winnipeg. People across the country are concerned about the health of the lake. Nutrients are fertilizing algae blooms that consume the oxygen in the water, which in turn harm fish populations and other natural life in the lake. Algae covered beaches limit everyone’s enjoyment of the lake and harm businesses that rely on Manitoba’s short tourist season. There have been countless studies and action plans but solving this complex problem remains elusive.

Some have pointed a finger at Manitoba’s farmers as contributing to the problems at Lake Winnipeg. This ignores the significant strides that agriculture has taken to ensure that the right nutrients are put in the right place and at the right time to maximize crop growth and limit nutrient runoff. Gone are the days of the little red barn where manure was spread on the surface without knowing its nutrient content, or where fertilizer was applied without knowing what the plants needed.

Modernization of agriculture has revolutionized nutrient management. Take today’s hog operations in Manitoba as an example. Before applying manure, farmers are required to file manure management plans with the provincial government. These nutrient management plans are tailored to the specific crop being grown and include soil sampling to help prevent the over application of nutrients. Over 90 percent of hog manure in Manitoba is injected below the soil surface, or incorporated into the soil immediately after application to prevent runoff and to position this valuable nutrient next to the seed where it is needed. Before application, the manure itself is sampled to give an accurate understanding of its nutrient content.

Advances in technology are making the application of manure more precise. Modern equipment can test the flow as the manure is being applied, using near infrared technology, and vary application rates on a real-time basis. Farmers use global positioning technology, ultrasonic speed sensors, and radar to ensure that manure is applied in the right place and at the right rate. The technology that is allowing farmers to maximize the benefits of this natural fertilizer is also helping to minimize nutrient leaching into waterways, including Lake Winnipeg. Similar advances in precision farming are allowing those who use synthetic fertilizers to apply plant nutrition in a way that maximizes its value.

Modern agriculture is using plant nutrition more precisely and efficiently while reducing the potential for negative environmental impacts and producing more food for consumers in Canada and around the world. This is what being part of the solution means to Manitoba’s farmers.

Being part of the solution can also mean taking action beyond the farm. Farmers are prepared to do this and ready to participate in a broad effort to develop solutions to the challenges facing Lake Winnipeg. As a first step we need to bring together expertise from all parts of the Lake Winnipeg basin – call this the Lake Winnipeg Task Group. The Task Group, which can be called together by the Province of Manitoba, should include representatives from livestock agriculture, representatives from grain and oilseed farmers, representatives from First Nations, and representatives from Manitoba municipalities, including the City of Winnipeg. The Task Group should also include third-party scientific expertise to steer the discussions.

The Task Group should be given a mandate to outline science-based measures that are designed to reduce nutrient flow into the lake. Some of the potential action items have already been discussed, such as rehabilitating marshes that filter incoming water, ensuring untreated sewage does not flow into the Red River, and increasing the understanding of the “right source, right place, right rate, and right time” principles for nutrient application in agriculture. The Task Group should be charged with presenting ways of breaking down barriers to the adoption of these known solutions as well as new ideas to keep Lake Winnipeg healthy. And finally, the Task Group should be forward looking and action oriented, rather than a body that rehashes the finger pointing that occurred in the past.

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